Among the most famous of all last words is Goethe’s deathbed cry: ‘Mehr licht!’ – ‘More light!’ Like many memorable phrases uttered in this extreme context, it has been the subject of a great deal of debate. Some of the great writer’s admirers have seen his words as a plea for spiritual enlightenment. Almost to the end of his life Goethe had been a non- believer. In his final year his position on this began to shift. Others have seen the phrase simply as an anguished request to open wide the shutters of his bedroom. Other still think he may have intended to refer to his book The Theory of Colours, which Goethe believed to be his most important work, surpassing all his poetic achievements. In fact, on the evening before his death, he was discussing optical phenomena with his daughter-in-law. These different theories are not mutually exclusive – there may be a particle of truth in all of them.
Something else is worth remembering here. Goethe’s death in 1832 coincided in neatly symbolic fashion with the start of the photographic age. In 1826 or 1827, five years at least before the great author died, Nicéphore Niépce produced the first light-fast camera photograph. In 1839 Louis Daguerre introduced his daguerrotype process to the public, and photography was soon being used worldwide. While Goethe was probably unaware of Niépce’s experiments, these were part of the spirit of his age.
It was really photography that taught the world to think in a new way about three-dimensional objects. They were no longer things that existed completely in their own right. They were now also things that were revealed and modelled by light. We live in a post-photographic age.
The art works included in this exhibition are very different from one another, but they do have one characteristic in common. They report on the magic of light – to venture on a tautology: they reveal its power to reveal. The Korean artist Hwang Seontae and the British painter Ben Johnson depict interior spaces that are defined and moulded by the light that fills them. The subject is not the space itself but its function as a vessel for illumination. Moto Waganari’s network sculptures are penetrated by light. His figures cast shadows, doubles of themselves, against the wall. The suspended sculptures are especially magical. Accompanied by their own shadows, which change shape according to the angle of the light, they multiply themselves, and become like a shoal of leaping fish. Lee Jeonglok, also Korean, uses photography to make images of trees that seem to be illuminated by the force of the life pulsing within them – trunks, branches, twigs, leaves, all ablaze with a violent life force.
We tend to think of photography, in particular, as the art of the literal. Lee Jeonglok demonstrates how it can convey a feeling of the transcendental. This is also the case with the other works on show. All of them invite the viewer to loosen his or her grip on everyday perceptions, and enter into a different, meditative state. The rooms depicted are sacred spaces. The network sculptures are accompanied by their doppelgangers on the walls.
Edward Lucie-Smith Art Historian, Critic & Author